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Medical students take on law degree program

September 20, 2007

Most students come to law school to learn to become attorneys, or perhaps to teach. But three new students plan to use their legal knowledge in a different field: medicine.

Brian Braithwaite, Matthew Lahaie and Thomas Parisi are enrolled in the M.D.-J.D. program, a unique educational collaboration launched in 2005 between the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minn. In the spring, all three finished two years of coursework at Mayo. They will spend two years in law school before returning to Minnesota for two more years of medical school.

Ordinarily, obtaining separate medical and law degrees would require seven years of full-time study. But under the M.D.-J.D., students’ learning is shortened because the college offers courses at times Mayo does not and will accept a portion of the credit hours required for a professional degree in law from courses completed at the medical school.

The college’s first M.D.-J.D. student, Brian Wilhelmi, graduated from law school in May and is finishing medical school now.

At the end of six years, Braithwaite, Lahaie and Parisi will have earned two degrees enabling them to practice law and medicine.

The young men are close friends and roommates, but they have very different personalities, interests and backgrounds. Each had visited Arizona just once before moving to Tempe for law school.

“I feel very blessed that two of my classmates will be in the same class as me, and that we’re going through this experience together,” says Braithwaite, who is athletic, loves ‘80s music and is the most extroverted of the three.

Born 25 years ago in Montreal, he grew up in Barbados, where his father, Sylvester, an obstetrician, ran a small hospital while his mother, Anna Marie, worked as a nurse.

Braithwaite’s undergraduate degree from the University of Florida is in microbiology and cell science. Following graduation, he took a year off to dabble in business, operating a doughnut shop and a print shop with his dad before settling on medical school.

“I always knew I would go into some sort of service field, helping people,” he says. “As I grew up, I realized being a doctor was the best way, and it seemed natural because I grew up around health care.”

Braithwaite’s commitment to giving back to his community was instilled by his parents and by his Bahá’í faith. However, Braithwaite also had an interest in law school, and after the college’s dean, Patricia White, and Wilhelmi spoke to his medical school class last year about the M.D.-J.D., he knew he’d found a way to get the best of both worlds.

His plan, though not firm, is to practice medicine and gain a greater understanding of malpractice issues and other pitfalls that his father has had to face.

“As a doctor, you have to have a legal background today, or you’re going to be taken advantage of by people who see you as deep-pocketed,” Braithwaite says. “Later on in my career, I may be able to defend doctors against malpractice.”

At 28, Lahaie is the oldest of the trio, and he enjoys traveling, cooking, painting and especially the Boston Red Sox. He grew up in Medfield, Mass., but considers himself a Bostonian, and he’s looking forward to living in a big city, despite the heat.

“I like that Phoenix is a large metropolitan area, where Rochester is very small, 100,000 people,” he says. “I’m an urban individual, and I want to come back to that kind of environment.”

Since his youth, Lahaie has been interested in biology, science and medicine, but he also feels a strong pull toward human rights. These interests are reflected in his varied background, which includes being a teenaged counselor for the Massachusetts Audubon Society to handling employee benefits research for an office supplies corporation during a summer job in college.

As an undergraduate, Lahaie developed and taught an innovative molecular biology curriculum in China, and planned and implemented HIV-AIDS education programs for Physicians for Human Rights U.S.A. Before attending medical school, he worked as a consultant, helping to develop an HIV-AIDS information network for the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He pursued research aimed at understanding the evolution of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and its implications for vaccine development at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Law school will help him understand the big-business side of medicine and malpractice issues plaguing that industry, and become familiar with the intersection of law and psychiatry, a field in which he’s interested.

The degree also will broaden his career options to include academic researcher, chief executive of a hospital or a family doctor who advocates for patients with a broken health-insurance system.

“There is a swath of reasons to do the M.D.-J.D., and I hope to pull out some useful experiences in all these areas,” Lahaie says.
Parisi might use the M.D.-J.D. as a vehicle to return someday to his birthplace, Washington, D.C., to influence public health policy. The ideal situation would be treating patients part time and working with national decision-makers on revamping health care.

“Doctors at Mayo are constantly telling us, ‘Health care’s changing. It has to change, and your generation is the one that’s going to have to deal with it,’ ” says the 25-year-old. “In our medical training, we get exposed to the physician’s perspective, what doctor’s think patients need, but in terms of how to make that happen, there’s a gap in our education. Getting the M.D.-J.D. will fill that hole in my education. I’d like to be involved in opening lines of communication between doctors, lawyers and politicians and try to make sure decisions are made in the patients’ best interests and in the doctors’ best interests, and not just what looks good on paper.”

Like Braithwaite, Parisi grew up around medicine; his father is a neuropathologist who also teaches at Mayo, and his mother was a social worker in an oncology setting. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where he began playing the violin at age 2, and he earned two undergraduate degrees, in violin performance and in science, from Northwestern University. Early on, Parisi thought he might enroll in music school, but after enduring four surgeries as a teenager for an inflamed large intestine and seeing the importance of medicine, he embarked on a different career path.

“I never even thought you could take out one of the major organs that people need to live and cure this disease that, before, I would have died from or gotten colon cancer eventually,” he says. “That changed my mind.”

Still, Parisi is looking forward to checking out ASU’s renowned College of Music, and he also enjoys swimming, soccer and cooking.
All three students have come to law school expecting their schoolwork to be as challenging as medical school, if in a different way.

“I’m looking forward to learning how to think and ask questions the way lawyers and politicians do,” Parisi says.

Adds Braithwaite: “The first year of law school is supposed to be the hardest ever of all graduate programs. I do have the thought of, ‘How can it be harder than med school?’ But I think it’s because it’s more about analytical thinking than just memorizing facts.”